|Studio Insider--January 32, 2004
I want to tell the story of my son’s cancer. I’ve put off writing it down for close to fifteen years and now it’s time.
The story starts on a warm July evening in 1997. I’ve driven to the BART station in Fremont to pick up my oldest son, Phillip, who’s traveled down from school in Berkeley so he and I can attend a little bluegrass festival together. Though we’ve gone to probably a couple dozen such events since he was a toddler, this one, the Good Ole’ Fashioned Bluegrass Festival, will be the first that just the two of us have attended, without the rest of the family, and the first Phil’s gone to as a ‘picker’. Always in the past he was dragged along by dad and his step-mom, by middle school kicking and screaming, and by high school, he’d quit going altogether. But this evening’s different—my son has been playing the mandolin for several months now, and singing too, and he’s ready to venture out and try his hand making music with other people, he’s going to jam. And I am thrilled beyond words.
On the way down to Hollister we stop at a Super K-Mart store to buy the necessaries…beer, bottled water, apples and cheese, peanuts in the shell and Irish whiskey, ice…and as we walk back to the old, beat up F-150 in the parking lot my son asks if I’d like him to drive. I say sure. There’s something different about this, something not quite the same as the adventures we’ve taken since my boy was tiny. There’s a camaraderie not unlike that shared by two friends, peers, and it makes us both a little giddy.
Once we’re on 101 the commute traffic slows to a crawl but we hardly notice. So much catching up to do, easy, relaxed give and take about his classes, my work and, of course, we now have the music…bluegrass…to talk about. We luxuriate in it, we joke and laugh and, for just a moment I find myself trying to remember if I’ve ever been happier. We’re headed to a bluegrass festival, picking buddies, with plenty of cold beer, a bottle of hooch and no textbooks to read or inter-office memos to write.
We consider stopping in Gilroy to grab a bite, but both of us are too excited to eat and, besides, we want to get to the fairgrounds before the sun sets to set up camp. Once we pull off 101 and are headed east on 25 the traffic thins to almost nothing. Even though the sun has begun its descent, the evening is still quite warm and, though we’d be cooler with the air conditioner on, we just roll the windows down to let the rushing wind wash over us. The pungent, musty smell of garlic, for which Gilroy is known, fills the cab. Fields of tomatoes and peppers and lettuce stretch brilliant green in all directions and beyond the Diablo Range begins to darken into gorgeous pastels of purple and mauve.
We’ve been quiet since turning east, the natural beauty of the lower Santa Clara Valley too richly textured, too beautifully painted by the gigantic orange sun behind us to have to compete with words. But then Phil reaches over, takes my left hand and places it on his neck.
“Feel that?” he asks, “whatcha think that is.”
“A ganglia,” I say, “I got ‘em all the time when I was your age. Or is it ganglion? Anyway, a cyst. That’s what it feels like to me. But you should get it looked at.”
“I mean it, Phil, you go in next week and have them look at it.”
“Yeah, yeah, pop, I will, I will,” my darling boy, my sweet little boy, the offspring I’d sworn never to bring into the screwed up world, promises.
“Well, you’d better. You go in on Monday and have it looked at. I’ll be checking to see that you did. Do you hear?”
“Yup, I hear.” And as quickly as that, with a just slightly impatient, “Yup,” the conversation ends and will be forgotten by me for sixty-three days and four hours.
I love to share with friends the story of how my oldest son got “hooked” on bluegrass. It’s an unlikely story and, really, it’s beginning had nothing at all to do with music. When Phil went away to college after high school, his mother and I had every reason to believe it would be a simple transition for him. Our son had always been very mature for his age, always up for adventure and never one to shy away from change; he was a confident kid who made friends as easily as some people nod and smile hello to a stranger in the check out line; and, after all, he’d be close by…the drive from San Jose to Berkeley was not much over an hour. For all of these reasons, then, Claudia and I, as well as Phil’s step mom and dad, where surprised when he came home for Christmas break and, without really admitting it, was showing clear signs of having been very, very home sick.
It was after pizza and a movie, (the notoriously bad Batman and Robin) the night before I was to drive him back up to his dorm in Berkeley that Phil came into my study and made a strange…really, you could almost say bizarre…request.
“Hey, you got any of those Grass Menagerie thingies left,” he asked with forced nonchalance.
“You mean the band’s cassette? Are you kidding, I’ve got boxes of them. Why, you wanna buy one? I can give you a good deal, buddy,” I laughed.
“Well, as a matter of fact, ah, I would like to have one. Of course I don’t want to pay for it if I don't have to.”
I turned away from my Mac and looked at him square on.
“Wait a second, you want a Grass Menagerie tape? A tape of MY band? A BLUEGRASS tape?”
“Sure,” he said, “why not? What’s so strange about that?”
“Hmm, let’s see. Where to begin? Ah, you don’t like bluegrass music and never have. Your opinion of my band is, well, we won’t even go into that. You wouldn’t be caught dead listening to hillbilly music by your dorm friends. Shall I go on?”
“That is not true,” Phil said, “I like some bluegrass music and I don’t think your band sucks that bad. Just…are you gonna give me one or not?”
I studied my boy’s face, looking for signs of an impending punch line, but there was none to be seen. He’d learned to be a big kidder from his dad and, like his dad, favored edgy humor. But there was nothing.
“Sure, I’ll give you a Grass Menagerie cassette. I’d love to give you one, son. I gotta admit, though, I’m a little curious about why you would want it.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is. I like lots of different kinds of…” Phil stopped mid-sentence and his eyes teared.
“Okay, so I miss you guys. That’s all, I just miss you living so far away and that’s the reason I want the stupid tape.”
“Sonny boy, there’s nothing wrong about missing someone,” I said quietly.
“I know there’s not, so just hand it over, would you?”
The next time Phil came home from school there was no mention of being homesick, he was upbeat and talked in quick bursts about his classes, new friends, dorm life and especially living in Berkeley. He loved Berkeley, he said, and he couldn’t think of any reason he would ever leave it. It was his new permanent home. And neither of us mentioned the Grass Menagerie tape called ‘Buffalo Bluegrass’.
In fact, I’d forgotten all about the incident by the time June rolled around and it was time to head up to Grass Valley for what was, and still is, the biggest bluegrass event of the year—the California Bluegrass Association’s Fathers Day Festival. I hadn’t missed a single Fathers Day Festival since I began going back in 1976…in fact, Phil never missed from age three until he was in high school. I remember particularly well the festival in 1998, and especially the second day of the festival. It was a balmy, early evening and a half dozen of us were standing around two huge bbq grills watching our dinner of chicken and sausage and baked potatoes cook. When my turn came around I banged out, without announcing the song, the first two slow, droning chords of High on a Mountain…D…Cmin7th…and instantly the entire circle fell deftly into the slow, wistful cadence of Olla Belle Reed’s beautiful ballad.
“As I looked at the valleys down below,” I began, “they were green just as far as I could see. As my memory returned, oh how my heart did yearn, for you and the day that used to be. “
And then, as I sang the first line of the chorus, “High on a mountain oh, wind blowin' free” an amazing thing happened. From behind me, a clear, strong tenor voice came in above my lead, pitch perfect and phrasing the lyrics in exactly the same way I was. Without missing a word, I continued on the chorus…”wonderin’ where the years of my life have gone…” I spun around and there, to my absolute amazement…shock even…was Phil. Aside from humming along with his brother to the theme music of their favorite video games, I’d never heard my son sing a word…not a single note, and there he was, dead on the not-uncomplicated high tenor part of a relatively obscure Appalachian Mountains song. We sang the last two lines and ended the song.
“What in the hell are you doing here,” I asked, wrapping my arms around him, fiddle in one hand, bow in the other, in a tight bear hug. “You haven’t been to a festival in three years.”
“Well, looks like I’m back, eh?”
“But why? What the…”
“Where else am I gonna find somebody to sing High on a Mountain with,” he said with a broad grin, “these two guys suck at it.” He gestured toward the two dorm buddies who flanked him.
Over dinner the three told me the story behind the surprise appearance at the Fathers Day Festival. When Phil had returned to Berkeley after the Christmas holiday he played the Grass Menagerie cassette tape continually. Most nights the dorm residents…boys and girls, Channing Hall was co-ed…would come down to the unit Phil shared with his roommate, Kenny, (since pre-school my oldest son had always been pretty much smack in the middle of things) and share the music each had brought along to school. Phil’s contribution was Buffalo Bluegrass. At first the hillbilly-sounding music with its twangy banjo and down-home lyrics about mountaintops and rivers flooding and barefoot Nellies was a joke, a novelty.
“But after a while,” Kenny said, “I don’t know, the shit…” he stopped…”ah, you know, the songs on the tape, just sort of grew on people, probably because Phil played it so much. Kids would come down and ask to hear this song or that song on the ‘buffalo tape’.”
“Yeah, dude, it became ‘the Cult of the Buffalo’,” laughed Daemon, gulping down his third chicken leg, “that’s what it was called, and Phil was its Jim Jones. People would memorize whole songs and then sing ‘em together in the shower.”
“Yep,” said Phil, “that’s pretty much what happened alright. It was weird…but cool, too. And, no, dad, the showers ARE NOT co-ed”
Phil and Kenny and Daemon stayed through Sunday. Mostly they just hung out, checking out the girls, sneaking beers when they got the chance, but my boy and I did sing a bit more together. He really had memorized the lyrics to each and every song on the cassette, but, even more…and this is what amazed me…he’d picked up the tenor parts on each song and had the phrasing down…my phrasing. “So I could sing along with you, pop,” he explained. (In retrospect, of course, it wasn’t all that amazing. Bluegrass music, a fair amount of it sung by me, had been seeping into the poor kid’s head since just after he started walking. It’d been there all along and, almost coincidentally, it’d been awakened.)
When Phillip returned to U.C in September he asked if he could take along my old baritone ukulele, essentially a miniature four-stringed guitar, and a handful of bluegrass tapes. I said sure, wrote out a simple chord chart for him and pulled all five of the ‘Bluegrass Band Albums’, (a series of records done by the top five singers and instrumentalists in the business at the time that included pretty much all the traditional standards you’d need to get started.) And that, as they say, was that. The kid who’d never shown a lick of interest in music, except the kind that blared on underground f.m. radio, had all along carried around somewhere deep in his frontal lobe a remarkable gift. It seemed that each visit home from school Phil had some new discovery to report…a new band, a new cd, a new sub-genre within bluegrass music, a different way to split harmonies. By Christmas the boy had devoured the chord chart I’d given him and had begun working the uke’s fret board, and by spring he spoke longingly of a Kentucky mandolin he’d seen. “Where I’d get five hundred bucks to buy it,” he said glumly, “I just don’t know.” He knew.
A year and a half later, the summer between Phil’s junior and senior year at Berkeley, we attended our first bluegrass festival together “as pickers,” (the Good Ol’ Fashioned Festival in Hollister). By then my son was a passable mandolin picker, a better than average tenor and lead singer and we’d played a whole lot of bluegrass together. He and Ivona, the love of his life with whom he’d been sharing a tiny flat on Shaddock Avenue for a year, would take BART down to Fremont once or twice a month for the jam I held each Friday night. And he began showing up to Grass Menagerie gigs with his college chums and, before long, was being asked to come up on stage for a song or two. Truth be told, everybody in the band was getting a kick out of seeing this young kid soak up as much of the music we all loved as he possibly could.
It was because Phil had gotten some solid stage experience that summer sitting in with my band that in September we asked him to fill in for our mando-tenor, my long-time bluegrass pal Bill Schniederman, for our regular monthly gig at a little coffee house in Mountain View. Bill was stuck back in New York for the weekend and we didn’t want to give up the job. Cuppa Joe’s was situated smack-dab in the heart of Mountain View’s downtown district on Murphy Street and, with more than four dozen restaurants and pubs and clubs and shops, the place was jumping on a Saturday night. Phil was downright nervous, (a condition I was unaccustomed to seeing in my boy), leading up to his first, honest-to-God gig, but after attending a rehearsal the Wednesday night before and making sure he had all the starts and ends down, jitters gave way to pure, high-octane excitement. The second to the last semester before his graduation had just begun, he was living with the woman he planned to marry and make babies with, and he was going to do an actual job, as an actual musician, with his pop. Hard to imagine a kid flying any higher than my boy that last week in September of 1997.
Joe’s was completely full, with people lining the walls and waiting in a queue outside, even before we’d finished setting up the sound system. Phil had invited half the kids in his U.C. Environmental Studies Program, all of the old high school pals he’d left behind in San Jose and anyone else he could think of. Even his mom and step dad had driven up for Phillip’s ‘stage debut’. As we did our sound check, it was me who was feeling a little queasy, me who’d been front man and bandleader for going on twenty years, who’d played run-down coffee houses to elegant soirees, cheap dives to corporate picnics, music festivals and more weddings than a Methodist minister. But never, of course, with my boy standing next to me. He chopped into his instrument mic and then ran up and down an A scale, sound-checked his vocal mic with a dangerously high key of B tenor line from ‘I’m Lost and I’ll Never Find the Way’. And all the while he smiled that broad, not-a-care-in-the-world smile of his. I recognized it as the same smile he’d worn standing at the free-throw line in the All-League game held at the San Jose Memorial Auditorium, his last high school contest. It was the same vibe…exactly the same vibe. And I felt the same butterflies standing on stage next to my son that I’d had sitting alone in the stands four years previous. And then, I counted the “one, two, three, four…” into my mic and we were off and running, full tilt into ‘Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone’.
And in what seemed like just moments later we’d finished the encore to our first set and were inching our way off the stage and through the tightly packed crowd, still thundering their applause and hoots and hollers of approval. “We killed,” I whispered to Phil. “We did,” he grinned.
I went straight out the door of Joe’s onto Murphy Street and straight back into Johnny’s Moonlight Lounge right next door.
“Old Bushmills neat and a Negro Modela,” I said to Sally as I passed the bar on the way to the men’s john. When I returned Sally had me set up and I handed her a ten.
“Sounds like the hounds were set loose next door,” the barmaid said over her shoulder while making change.
“Big crowd, bigger than usual. My boy’s setting in with the Grass Menagerie tonight and a big bunch of his friends came in to cheer him on.”
“Well, whatever it took to fill the Joe’s up, keep it comin’. We’re gettin’ major spill over.”
I drained the shot glass and took a long pull on my beer.
“You know, Sally, I’ve been doing this music for a pretty long time, standin’ up in front of crowds singin’ and playin’ my butt off. But I’ll tell you, I don't ever remember having more fun than that last set next door. Being up there on stage singing with my kid…I don’t know, there was just an intensity to the experience that was new to me…brand new.”
“I can dig it,” she said, “tonight’s a special night for you, and that’s for sure. Would be for me. I’ll bet you never forget this night, Rick.”
“I’ll bet I don’t,” I replied and finished my glass of beer in two long gulps.
When I edged back into Cuppa Joe’s Phil was waiting at the door.
“Hey, come on,” he said, taking me by the hand and plowing a path through the long, narrow room. When we got to Claudia’s table he pulled her out of her chair and guided her forward through the crowd. Phil held both our hands now as we continued to snake towards the back of the coffee house.
“Come on,” he said, now leading us through the double doors of the brightly lit kitchen, past the busy baristas and finally out the back door and into the night.
“Too loud in there,” Phil said. He still hadn’t let go of our hands. It was a warm night, lovely and still, and we’d moved just far enough from the kitchen entry that only the light of the moon illuminated our faces.
“I found out yesterday that I have cancer,” Phil said, “and this is the best way to tell you. The three of us, me and my mom and my dad, here alone. Sorry, but this is the best way.”
Claudia gasped. I jerked my hand out of my son’s.
“WHAT,” I said angrily, “what do you mean? No, that’s not right…you’re not. No, I just don’t…”
‘It’s true, pop. I’ve got cancer all right. Kind of have known for the past week, but found out yesterday for sure from the doctor.”
“Past week,” Claudia asked in a whisper, “past week? How can that be, Phillip. How is it possible you’ve known for a week and not told your father and me?”
“I didn’t know, mom. I just kinda’ knew. They had to do tests and stuff, to make sure. But now they’re sure, so now I’m telling you.”
The clanging of dishes and cups coming from Joe’s kitchen and, beyond that, the low rumble from the room jam-packed with people, seemed far, far away. It was as though we three were in another place, soundless, featureless.
“What…” I began but then realized I could not make another word. I was in a kind of paralysis, my body’s only possible movement the involuntary shaking of my knees.
“I’m gonna be okay,” Phil said, “I’m gonna be just fine. The doctor at Kaiser says I’ve got a good kind of cancer…actually, the best kind I could have, Hodgkin's Lymphoma.”
Claudia began to sob quietly and covered her face with both her hands. Standing between his parents, Phil put one arm around each of us and drew us in.
“You guys need to trust me,” he said softly, I’m telling you the truth. I’ve got a kind of cancer that’s very curable and I’m going to be cured. That's it. That’s the whole deal.” Our son pulled us closer together and Phil’s mother and I sobbed in his arms for a long while. We’d become the children, he the parent.
When the potency of despair reaches a particular level in the mind, certain natural phenomena are triggered and I’d been unaware of this fact until that weekend in September of 1997. One presented itself the very next morning after the show at Cuppa Joe’s. I remember so well, in such great, vivid detail, the seven or eight seconds of waking up to the sunshine streaming into our bedroom, my eyelids fluttering open, the nothingness of dreamless sleep slowly giving way to conscious thought, kernels of the new day beginning to take shape, then reaching back to find a temporal context, nine seconds, ten seconds, stretching, toes curling…and then the instantaneous and indescribable pain of remembering. The paralyzing sense of loss falling like a heavy, black curtain. In the days and weeks that followed I got used to this strange phenomenon, actually found myself half-way looking forward to the eight or ten seconds out of the days 86,400 that I forgot about my boy’s cancer and life returned to normal.
And there was another strange discovery I made after my life changed that night at Cuppa Joe’s. I found that my sensory perception, the way I saw and smelled and heard the things around me, shifted ever so slightly. I don't’ know how else to describe it. It wasn't a bad shift or a good shift…things just appeared different to me. The color of the sky, the smell of coffee, the sound of a car door slamming. I didn’t, and still don’t, know what to make of that, how to quantify it and certainly not how to explain why it happened, except to say that learning that my oldest son had cancer altered every aspect of my life, every cell in my body, every thought and memory and feeling, good or bad, that I’d ever had.
I need to give a little explanation here. It really was despair I felt. It settled over me like a heavy, suffocating blanket as the three of us stood in the shadows in the alleyway in back of Cuppa Joe’s. Despair is a powerful brew of human emotions, with equal amounts of intense sadness and terror, but mainly what despair is is total, complete hopelessness. Hopelessness is the key ingredient in the human emotion we call despair, and from the instant my son uttered the word ‘cancer’, it fell upon me with such a completeness that makes me shutter to this day. You see, seventeen years before Cuppa Joe’s my mother’s cancer had taken its sweet time to properly educate me about the true nature of despair. For just a little short of three years my mother’s cancer made its slow, plodding but inexorable march to the sea, winning small skirmishes here, wiping out whole cities and armies there. Each hope…a new test, a different treatment plan, yet another specialist…was in turn cut down and set ablaze until finally, I lost the most important person in my life. In those two years and ten months I‘d progressed through grade school, high school, undergraduate and graduate studies, and on June 23, 1980 I was awarded an advanced degree in the scorched-earth campaign that is cancer, and in turn learned the true nature of hopelessness.
So then, when on the Wednesday morning after Cuppa Joe’s all of the parents, Claudia and her husband Bruce, my wife Lynn and I, met Phil at Kaiser Hospital on West Macarthur Boulevard in Oakland I came fully prepared to see right through the inevitable line of crap we’d be fed by the doctors. Phillip’s upbeat manner, broad smile and easy banter, all unmistakably genuine, shamed the adults into doing their level best to put on buoyant faces; it was, of course, hardest for me, the only one of the four parents with an advanced degree in cancer’s special brand of despair.
It was clear that the people in Oncology had been expecting us. We were immediately ushered into a small, windowless conference room by the receptionist and hadn’t waited more than a few minutes before Dr. Thomas Gordon, the doc who, through a cosmic throw of the dice, had had our boy’s life placed in the palm of his hand, joined us. Gordon was of medium height, bald, trimmed facial hair, gold framed glasses and eyes that seemed just slightly too small for his head. He was, for the five of us who sat at the conference table when he walked through the door, the most important human being on the face of the earth. And when Dr. Gordon began to speak to us I knew within thirty seconds, maybe less, that he was a disingenuous asshole who wanted nothing more than to get himself out of the room and away from his patient’s family in the least amount of time possible. And here’s the thing—by the time we finished the sit down, which included an almost formal presentation by the oncologist, complete with slide projector, x-rays and thick packets of written materials to take home and study, followed by a question-and-answer period that lasted roughly twice as long as the presentation, what I thought of the doctor didn’t matter a hill of beans. A non-issue. (Years later, Phil would sum it up very succinctly…”Yup, Dr. Gordon had a fake personality. He tended to gloss over a lot of stuff and get out of the room as fast as possible every time I met with him. But I decided this was because I was an easy case and he had way more important cases to worry about.”)
My assessment of the oncologist who’d been given Phillip’s case didn’t matter a hill of beans because of what he told us about the Hodgkin’s type of cancer that was growing inside my boy. It was, he said simply, the ‘cancer of choice’ for young men and women Phil’s age.
“The cure rate,” Gordon told us, “even for patients at your son’s stage, is nine in ten. That’s pretty much the best odds you’re going to find in my line of work. So, that’s the good news. The GREAT news.”
“And the bad news,” I asked impatiently, well trained in detecting the old medical bate-and-switch, “what’s the bad news, doctor?”
“The bad news is that your son’s disease went undetected long enough for it to reach stage three. Again, infinitely curable but we’ll have to work harder…a lot harder. Longer, stronger drug therapy…chemo…and in all likelihood radiation after that. But again…and please hear me, moms and dads, this is extremely doable.”
And here’s the thing. Despite the nearly three years I’d spent twisting in the wind while my mother’s life slowly drained from her, clinging desperately to each new reason, in an endless succession of reasons, for holding out hope, I’d taken what my son’s oncologist said as the simple truth. The ‘cancer of choice’. Sure, I’d have plenty of doubts in the months that followed, I’d play back old, painful scenes burned into my brain a decade earlier, but I…we…were starting this battle on solid ground.
When we finished and were filing out of the room, I held back and positioned myself between Gordon and the others and turned just as the last person exited, effectively blocking his way out.
“Dr.,” I said in a hushed tone, “one last question. When you spoke of Phil’s cancer going undetected long enough to have to warrant radiation, what time frame are we talking about? For instance, if this thing had been caught, let’s say in early July instead of late September, might we be looking at a lesser stage of development?”
Gordon didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” he said, “that’s a distinct possibility,” and with that he brushed by me and out the door. As I stood in the empty conference room, I looked over and saw that the oncologist had left the x-ray of my son’s neck and chest in the light box. It was still illuminated. I studied the dark spots Gordon had pointed out to us and I could feel my eyes welling up with tears. “Well, you’d better. You go in on Monday and have it looked at. I’ll be checking to see that you did. Do you hear?”
No amount of discussing, ordering, cajoling, demanding, threatening or pleading from his mother and father would budge Phil. Yes, he said, he absolutely agreed that the optimal place for him to live while beating his cancer was at home, and the little apartment on Shaddock Avenue that he shared with Ivona was his home. As for school, yes, he said, he knew he would have to drop his classes, but only for one semester; his chemo would be finished in March and he had no doubt he’d be ready to jump right back in. And finally, yes, he agreed that at least until he was all through with treatment he would add meat back into his diet. (I found out years later that it’d been a nurse practitioner at Kaiser rather than his mom and dad who’d convinced him that protesting the slaughter of animals via diet restriction was fine for healthy kids but not ideal for those in mortal combat with one of earth’s deadliest killers. Common sense seems so much more, well, sensible when it comes from perfect strangers.)
And so began what was the darkest six months of my life, and I’m sure the lives of Lynn and Claudia and Bruce. But when Phil started his six months of chemo all of us, even me, who’d been so horribly jilted by false, bullshit hope all the while my mother faded away, believed absolutely that our kid would be among the nine in ten that beat Hodgkin’s. We knew too, though, there’d be a cost; every other week this strong, healthy and vital twenty-year old would take the bus down to Kaiser for his three-and-half hour ‘hook-up’ as he called it. The oncologist had warned us that although Hodgkin’s was one of the easiest cancers to conquer statistically, the treatment needed to do it was one of the hardest on the body. “Fortunately,” he’d told us, “95% of Hodgkin lymphoma victims are young, in their late teens or early twenties, and their bodies are strong enough to hold up under the ABVD protocol.” (ABVD stood for a hyper-potent cocktail of Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine and Dacarbazine developed in the early ‘70’s by an Italian research group in Milan.) “It’s going to work,” Gordon said, “but it’s going to kick the crap out of your kid.”
For quite a while it didn’t. During that winter we saw Phil and Ivona a lot…we’d gotten them a car to make traveling between Berkeley and San Jose easier…and we saw them most weekends. He’d have his treatment early in the week, feel lousy for a few days but, by the weekend he’d be almost back to normal. The kid had no nausea issues at all and, in fact, was eating better than he had since moving down to Berkeley four years before; Ivona made sure of that. By Christmas time Phillip had lost all of his hair…scalp, eyebrows and lashes, even the hair on his arms. (Right up until the time I retired I kept a framed photo of my son hanging on the wall in my office; in it he wore a stocking cap to cover is entirely bald head, had deep, deep dark circles under his eyes…really more like around his eyes ala-raccoon and was playing his mandolin and singing. I kept that photo there on the wall to prevent me from ever taking either of my boys for granted. Now it hangs in my study.)
Phil practiced his mandolin almost obsessively during this period. He’d always been an excellent student in school and, now suddenly with no studying to do, he poured all of the energy and determination and concentration he’d applied to academics into his Kentucky mandolin. Those six months of playing hours and hours each day gave him a huge bump and quite literally transformed him from a beginner to an advanced player more quickly than most of those around him thought possible.
The other accelerated transformation, driven in part by the six months of raw and exposed emotions, ever-present highs and lows and always just-below the surface dread of the unexpected, occurred in the relationship between Phillip and Ivona. For the better part of the year leading up to my son’s diagnosis the two seemed like a well matched couple with a better than average chance of making a future together; but by the time the dark winter of intense chemotherapy drew to an end, the bond between them had taken on the look and feel of a connection forged from decades of sharing a life together. What young woman, so beautiful and so vital, just graduated and ready to jump into a new life and career, wouldn’t have hightailed it away from the immediate job of caregiver and, longer term, the partnering up with a cancer survivor and everything that can mean?
By the time the Christmas holiday had come and gone the massive quantities of Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine and Dacarbazine pumped into my boy had begun to take their toll. Phil was slowing down and regaining less and less of the bounce he’d seen in the days following his treatments. Then, in late January, Phil’s veins started to give out and were becoming harder and harder to find. Eventually his team at Kaiser had to start drugging him to get to an adequate vein. By then Phil was sleeping through the three to four hour treatments; and he was sleeping more and more in his tiny Shaddock Avenue apartment too.
Sunday, March 15th, 1998, was going to be a day of great celebration; at least that was how I had it planned. The next day, Monday, Phillip would go in for his last chemotherapy treatment. All the testing and x-raying and scanning showed exactly what they were supposed to show—the tumor shrank and shrank and shrank until there was nothing left of it. On Monday they’d zap the damned thing one last time for good measure so, of course, there was reason for celebration. Phil and Invona had driven down to San Jose the day before and spent the night at his mom’s. They’d be showing up at our house by noon so we spent the morning getting ready for them. Lynn made a big poster that read “Phil 1, Cancer 0…GAME OVER, MAN.” I went to the Safeway and loaded up with everything I could think of that were my son’s favorite’s to eat and drink. Together we blew up balloons and then waited for the two to arrive.
At one o’clock I wanted to call Claudia’s house to see what was up but Lynn said no. “They probably slept in…some people do that on Sundays, you know.” At a little after two I’d just picked up the receiver to make the call when we heard the back door open.
“It’s them,” I said bolting our of my chair, “they’re finally here.” We both rushed excitedly into the kitchen to meet Phil and Ivona but what we saw stopped us both in our tracks. Our son was bundled up in his green Army surplus coat, a heavy woolen neck scarf and a fake fur hunting cap with the ear flaps down. His eyes were those of a weary old man, sunken into his skull with deep purple circles around them. His skin had a grayish pallor to it. When he saw us he made a half smile with what was obviously great effort. Ivona, who looked as though she’d been crying, spoke first.
“Hi, you two, sorry we’re late. Phil…Phil isn’t feeling very well. We had a long night last night. Phil was pretty sick…a lot of pain in his stomach and...”
“But no throwing up,” Phil interrupted, “not once in this whole thing have I thrown up.”
I rushed over and gave them a big hug, one in each arm. Ivona stiffened slightly, Phil felt limp and seemed unsteady.
“Well, you’re here and that’s what counts,” said Lynn, “come and sit down in the living room.”
“I need to use the bathroom first,” Phillip said and Ivona followed behind him.
“So much for Cajun fried prawns and steak fries and coleslaw,” I said after they’d left the room.”
“Well, what did you expect? The kid’s sick. All those toxic chemicals, they were sure to take their toll sooner or later.”
“I expected this,” I lied, “I expected EXACTLY THIS. I just didn’t…I didn’t.” My voice trailed off into silence.
“I know, I know,” said my wife in a whisper, holding me now, cradling my head on her shoulder. “We just have to hold out, just a little while longer. If he can do it surely we can.”
“Of course we can,” I said, “yes, of course. I just, I don’t know why I…” Again I stopped mid-sentence, now on the verge of breaking down.
“I’ll tell you why. It’s simple. You’re reacting this way because you…we…have only had to deal with the IDEA of Phil’s cancer, at least for the most part. For most of the treatment he’s held up fine…great really. But now we’re at the end, thankfully, and it’s caught up with him. It's terrible to see him like this, but we’re at the end. Now, don’t be moping around, be happy to see them…I know you are, but show it. Let’s make him comfortable and happy to be here.”
So, for most of the after noon, that’s just what I did, in my inimitable way, in the always-larger-than-life, more-is-better way I do everything. I followed him around the house. “No lunch…okay, how about a little fruit…I bought mangos, your favorite…Burned you a CD of Stanley Brothers stuff, the ‘Complete Columbia Sessions’, let’s go in the study and listen to a bit of it…How about a little walk…Just around the neighborhood, get some fresh air…Oh, I picked up some Snyder's sour dough, best pretzel’s in the world, and of course some Newcastle to wash ‘em down…Whaddaya say…Warm enough…I could build a fire…I taped the Clippers-Golden State game last night…Did you see it …How’s your stomach…Are you gonna be able to have dinner…deep-fried jumbo prawns… with golden steak fries…or I could make potato skins…Or, you know, like, ah, stuffed potatoes the way you like…Or…”
“ENOUGH,” he finally said late in the afternoon. We were alone in my study, he still bundled up and sitting in the over-stuffed leather chair, me at my desk. “NO MORE, PLEASE, NO MORE!” There was anger in my son’s voice, no longer weak and tentative, and there was anger in his eyes. We stared at one another for a moment.
“I was just trying to…”
“I KNOW what you were trying to do. Do you honestly think you have to explain it to me? Am I an idiot? Don’t you get that you can’t have your way every single solitary friggin’ time, dad?” His voice had lowered but was strong and steady and angry.
“Ya, I know what you just thought. You thought you were going to take care of the situation just like you always take care of the situation. Except, guess what—this time you can’t. YOU CANT! I’m really, really, really sick, dad. I feel awful and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Absolutely nothing. Do you understand? Please, can’t you try to understand? I know you love me, I know you’re hurting having to see me like this, but there is nothing in the world that you could do to make me feel even a microscopically tiny bit better.”
“Okay,” I said, “okay.”
We sat in silence for probably five minutes. It wasn’t an awkward silence, or tense in any way. The anger had drained out of Phil and was replaced by a deep, deep weariness. After a while he closed his eyes, and soon after I got up and left the room.
A few minutes later I returned to the study with my leather jacket on. “Here,” I said, tossing him his stocking cap. “Put that on and come with me. I have a quick errand to do. Ride along with me. Will you?”
Ten minutes later we were driving north on 101 in my old Ford pickup truck. It was a cloudless March afternoon, but bone-chilling cold. I’d read the day before that a front from Alaska had settled in over the upper half of California and would be with us for another couple of days.
“So cold,” I said. “Isn’t it odd that we can be effected by Alaska’s weather.”
“Well, it’s not Alaska’s today, it’s ours.”
“Do you remember the last time we were on 101 in the old F-150, headed in the other direction?”
“Ah,” he thought for a moment. “Was it the time we went to Hollister? Last summer?”
“Yep, we were headed toward the Good Old-Fashioned Festival. Just about this time of the day, but with the temperature about sixty degrees warmer. Seems like a long, long time ago, doesn’t it?”
“Well, it was a long time ago. So, like, dad, where are we going? What’s the errand? Is it far?”
“Not too far. Do you remember on our drive down to Hollister, do you remember that you had me feel the lump on your neck?”
“The ganglion?” he said with a chuckle, “yeah, I remember that. It was a good guess, but no cigar.”
“I told you not to worry about it.”
“That’s right, but you also told me to have it checked out.”
“I did, and I made you promise you’d do it right away. And I told you I’d keep bugging you until you had it checked out by a doctor.” My voice cracked and I gripped the steering wheel hard with both hands so Phil couldn’t see they were trembling. I’d waited so long to have this conversation, never knowing for sure whether I’d ever have the courage.
“I know, and I promised I would but instead I waited till school started and I’d be covered by our student health insurance plan...to save money. To save sixty bucks. Can you believe it? Dumb”
“I keep asking myself…over and over and over…why, why didn’t I…
“Huh? What? Why didn’t you what?”
“Why didn’t I call you the following Monday to make sure you went to the health clinic. And the next Tuesday, and the next Wednesday and every day until you went? Do you know that that could have…” My son interrupted me.
“So that’s what this is all about? Sure I know, of course I know how things might have been different. You think I haven’t thought about it? If we’d found it in July instead of at the end of September there’s a chance the tumor wouldn’t have gotten as big as it got. And that might have meant the chemo would have been a lot shorter. And that I wouldn’t have to do the radiation part of the treatment. Yeah, I know that…Gordon told me that. But if you’re telling me you’re the cause of that…you know, for not staying on me about seeing a doc, well, that’s pretty much just bullshit, isn’t it. The never-ending Rick Cornish to the rescue scenario…the my-dad-can-solve-everybody’s-problems principle. But you can’t. You do know that, don’t you? Oh, my God, you don’t, do you? “
“Look, I just wanted to get clear with you on this. To ask your forgive…
“And let me guess what’s next. It turns out that, in fact, the radiation treatments next month do cause me to become sterile…the doc says there’s a thirty percent chance of that…so now you get to take credit for fucking up my entire life, and Ivona’s, too. Do you know how crazy that sounds, dad?”
“Now, wait a second, dammit...”
“No, YOU wait. You followed me around all afternoon. The ‘fixer’. Well, you’ve been fixing things for me my whole life, you’ve been fixing things for everybody, whether they like it or not. But this time, this one damned time, you can’t fix it. I feel like shit, a steaming pile of dog shit, and there’s nothing in the world that you can do to make me feel one little bit better.”
“Come on now,” I began, but then stopped. Something had changed about my son since last fall…since Cuppa Joe’s. It was gradual, almost imperceptible, but every time I saw him I could sense the difference. The cancer, or more accurately his way of dealing with it, and dealing with the possibility that he would die before he really even had a chance to start his own life, was speeding up the natural maturation process. He was learning and becoming aware and taking on new understanding about life and people and relationships and what is and isn’t important…and, yes, a new understanding of his father…all, it seemed, at the speed of light.
“This is our exit,” I said as I took the Oregon Expressway off-ramp and headed west toward the El Camino.
“What’s in Palo Alto?”
“My errand. It’ll just take a second,” I replied without taking my eyes off the road.
We drove the five minutes to Lambert Street in silence and parked in front of an old, white-washed converted warehouse
“Gryphon’s?” Phil said with more animation than I’d seen all day, “your errand is at Gryphon’s? Cool, I want to come in with you and look around.”
Gryphon’s Stringed Instruments had for close to forty years been the preferred source of fine instruments among serious musicians throughout Northern California. No one had a better selection of the brands and models of the stringed instruments of bluegrass music…the guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, dobros and basses.
When we walked through the door and into their cluttered showroom brimming with treasures, vintage and brand new, a salesman, actually a picker that both Phil and I knew, approached us.
“Hey, John,” I said, “My boy and I are looking for a mandolin.”
Phillip laughed out loud and a broad smile, the first I’d seen all day, washed over his face.
“The fixer,” he said, shaking his head, “always the fixer.”
The next day my kid had his last chemotherapy session. April 3rd he had the first in a one-month series of radiation treatments. The last week in May Phillip was pronounced cancer free and in remission. The following month we camped together at the Fathers Day Festival and by then his hair had nearly grown back. In September 1998, Phil proudly announced to his family that he’d graduated from the University of California, Berkeley. (I’ve never fully understood how he managed this after dropping out for a semester…extra units he’d squirrelled away as a junior, then some requirements picked up post-illness at summer school.) By late fall my boy joined the Grass Menagerie and for a blissful eighteen months father and son played every date we could get our hands on. Exactly five years after living through massive doses of toxic chemicals and dangerously high levels of radiation, my son was formally proclaimed a cured cancer survivor, (Phil one; cancer zero…game over, man). In 2005 Phil married Ivona; the next year they bought a condominium, less than a mile from the house he’d grown up in in San Jose’s Willow Glen district, (so much for NEVER leaving Berkeley); three years later they had their first child, a girl named Lexy; then two years and a few months after that they had their second daughter, Ava. I am called gramps. Phillip still plays the Red Diamond mandolin he picked out at Gryphon’s that cold March day in 1998. He’s tried a lot of other axes, he says, some very, very expensive ones, too, but he’s never played a mandolin that sounds as sweet as the Red Diamond.
Me, I’m still playing my fiddle and still ‘fixing’, or trying to, whenever the need arises. But thanks to my boy, I take it a little slower.
By: Rick Cornish
Copyright © 2002 California
Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
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